The Only Prioritization and Productivity Tool You Will Ever Need
Prioritize Your Tasks, Boost Your Productivity.
Look on almost any website targeting professionals, entrepreneurs or career development and you find articles on productivity and prioritization. Whether sharing prioritization tips, identifying productivity killers, telling managers how to measure productivity, or improving your own ‘work per hour’ rate, you can find lists, inspirational sites, hero stories or nightmare stories. None of those is as valuable as what I am going to show you: the only prioritization and productivity tool you will ever need.
Nothing Succeeds Like Success
How do I know this is ‘the one’? I have used this tool for more than 20 years, for everything from schoolwork to work tasks to managerial priorities to running my own business. When the world is spinning and every activity seems to be the most important, this simple tool never fails. Using it restores control over my time and my task list. Establishing clear priorities eliminates meaningless work, automatically boosting productivity. Like the best tools, it is simple, elegant and powerful.
Don’t just take my word for it. Believe Dr. Stephen Covey, the guru of time management and self-improvement. He included a version of the grid in his book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.’ So have countless other books, sites, and experts.
Are you ready?
Here it is…
Surprised? Yes, it’s your old friend, the 4-box grid. Four boxes, two axes. I told you it was simple! One axis for urgency, the other for importance. Better known as the Urgent-Important Grid, or sometimes the Eisenhower Matrix, after General and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike believed in 2 kinds of problems: Urgent ones, which were rarely important, or at least, not as important as they seemed, and genuinely important ones which, when handled correctly, didn’t become urgent. The same applies to you and me; understanding which is which is the key to productivity improvement.
I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.
Using the Grid for Prioritization and Productivity
The grid is flexible; do it online or offline, electronically or by hand. Several apps are also available, including this ‘official’ one. I use a paper and pen; it takes me no time at all and clears my mind. Use whatever works for you. Just use it.
Using the grid is simple. List all of your to-dos, from picking a place for dinner next week to writing a major report. Then decide whether they are urgent or not, and whether they are important…or not. My definitions are:
- Urgent: must be completed in a short time frame. Short can mean 1 day, 1 week, 1 hour: it depends on how far in advance you want to manage your time.
- Important: someone will notice if it doesn’t happen, and that someone matters. For personal activities, that person might be me. OR if it doesn’t happen, I will smack myself in the head later and have to do it anyway, urgently.
Consider some examples: making dinner reservations for tonight is urgent, but if I’m just meeting a friend and we are happy to go someplace casual, then it is not important. Completing a major strategy document at work is important, but if it isn’t due for 3 weeks it’s not urgent. Spending an hour on my latest craft project is important for my sanity, but not urgent (unless my sanity is cracking…then it’s urgent and important). Classify your tasks quickly; your first guess is probably most accurate. You can adjust later if necessary. Mark each task based on the classification. I use U or NU, and I or NI.
The Magic Takes Over
Now that you have each task classified as important (or not) and urgent (or not), the productivity magic takes over. Review the boxes in this order, and with these specific actions:
- Urgent and Not Important Look at the items in this box first. Someone wants them done, though they don’t add any value for you. Could they be important to someone else? Delegate the task to that person and take it off your list. If you can’t delegate it, briefly consider the consequences of not doing this task all. You already know it’s not important; cross it off your list and move on. Instant productivity!
- Not Urgent and Not Important: I love this part. Don’t do them. That’s right, just cross them off your list. If they don’t have to happen any time soon, and no one will notice if they aren’t done, why are you giving them any of your precious energy? Another instant productivity boost!
- Urgent and Important: Once you start working, these tasks get your attention first. After this quick prioritization exercise, go somewhere you can concentrate and finish them, one at a time. I find that these are most often jobs that I put off, because they aren’t going to be fun. I call them frogs, from Mark Twain’s saying ‘eat your frogs first.’ Do the worst thing in your day first and get it out of the way. After the frogs, your day automatically improves.
- Not Urgent and Important: Tasks in this box deserve your time and attention; once you finish the Urgent and Important tasks, focus on these. Set aside focused time to work on them. For major projects, set aside several blocks of time, so you can mull them over and make changes if needed. Stick with your plan and you will finish these NU/I items without unnecessary time pressure.
Now Unleash Your Energy
Congratulations! You have just overcome a top productivity obstacle: deciding what to do first. You eliminated your Urgent/Not Important and Not Urgent/Not Important tasks. Now start doing. Eat your Urgent/Important Frogs, then complete the Urgent/Important non-frogs. Next, move on to the Not Urgent and Important box, using focused blocks of time in a comfortable work environment, doing your best work.
If, like many busy people, you find most of your items in the Urgent/Important box, put those items through the grid again. Despite the myth of multi-tasking, only one task can come first; everything can’t be priority 1. You can at least make them 1A, 1B, 1C…the grid makes prioritizing these important jobs easier.
Develop a Prioritization Routine
Make prioritization with the grid part of your routine, and increased productivity follows. On normal days I run through the grid either first thing in the morning or as my last task before shutting down, so I know where to start the next day. On crazy days I might do this exercise several times.
Did a new task just appear on your desk? Continue what you are doing and include the new request in your next grid review. If life hands you a sudden unexpected and genuinely urgent and important task, take a moment to run the grid before you jump into it. Clarify for yourself whether this task is really the most important item for you to address now, or whether it can wait until you finish what you are doing. In my experience, outside of medical practices or sudden illness, very few ‘emergencies’ can’t wait for 30 minutes or an hour, until your current task is finished.
Your Productivity Grows With Practice
Another benefit of using the grid is the way it changes your thinking. After a few weeks you recognize your own patterns and can adapt to them. Constantly filling your Not Urgent/Not Important box? Learn to say no. Let go of the unimportant stuff and ‘lighten up’ your mind. Urgent boxes packed with tasks? You might need some time management skills, or help getting over procrastination. Or perhaps you are genuinely overloaded. What can you stop?
The 2-box Urgent/Important grid frees energy for activities that are important to you, whether for work, your private life, or your balance between the two. This tool made me more productive, and more relaxed, than most of my colleagues. It can do the same for you. Try it today!